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Who’s In and Who’s Out: Challenging our Way of Thinking

November 7, 2020
This picture is from our Selma to Montgomery Pilgrimage. This is the entrance to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (a project of the Equal Justice Initiative)

To say that this week has been interesting so far (I am writing on Wednesday but will publish this blog on Saturday) would be a massive understatement. The divisions in this nation, and I would also say world, are in the headlines every day or every hour it seems. I have no idea what the rest of the week will hold.

I voted in my first presidential election in 1980. I was a young and naive 20-year-old Junior at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. At that time, I still believed that the process was just and equitable. I was too young to remember much of the Civil Rights movement in my small mostly white hometown. It was only later that the reality began to emerge as I saw the world through a different lens. When I entered seminary in 1983, I was in the minority as a young, straight, white, male. The seminary experience challenged my fundamental theological and world view. This was something that I would take with me into my career in the USAF as a chaplain. Those 21 years would open my eyes to so many issues and concerns. My theological worldview was broadened as I worked in an interfaith environment. I didn’t lose a sense of who I was as a Christian, but I gained a broader appreciation of the length and breadth of God’s family.

Whether it was studying various levels of Professional Military Education (Squadron Officers’ School, Air Command and Staff College, and Air War College) or watching policy being carried out, my view was changing. I remember asking senior leaders while I was in Air Command and Staff College (independent study) what the overall National Military Strategy was in our response to the attacks of 9-11. I also remember confronting Islamophobia head on with some of my fellow military members at that time. Fearmongering and lies were spread around and I felt compelled to address that whenever I came across it during my ministry in the US and abroad.

So, what does this have to do with the lectionary passages for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost? Actually, there is a reason that I began this blog the way I did. As I contemplated and studied Matthew 25:1-13 (sometimes called the wise and foolish bridesmaids) my unease grew. Now I have studied this passage and preached from it more times than I can count during the past 33 years of ministry. This time around, it feels different to me. Perhaps it is because I am reading it through the lens of the division in church and society today. Actually, Spirit is challenging me to re-think this passage and do something rather bold. I am actually challenging one of the aspects of that story which Jesus told, thus challenging Jesus himself. Perhaps I am being challenged to rethink this passage because of what I have seen and experienced through the years. Perhaps it is because of what this student of history sees as an eerie parallel between the Nationalist “Christian” Church in 1930’s Germany and today’s “God, Guns, and the Bible” folks who spread hatred, fear, and all sorts of phobias around in this nation. The rise of Nationalism here and abroad is scary. There is a HUGE difference between Nationalism and Patriotism. Patriotism here is a love and respect for our nation and her founding principles. Patriotism affirms the notion from the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” while acknowledging that this definition in the Declaration is far from perfect and needs to be improved upon. For instance, ALL men and women are created equal. Created equal… in this equality, there is no room for “who’s in and who’s out” or the sort of gap we have between the “haves and the have nots” today. Nationalism on the other hand is divisive and used as a tool of oppression by the so-called “in” crowd against the so-called “out” crowd.

The parable of the bridesmaids is about preparation for the coming kingdom, but it is also about exclusion, the haves and the have-nots. The way this parable has been often interpreted focuses on the individual responsibility for being ready for the coming kingdom. Yet if we look at the message of Jesus to the poor and the oppressed, this parable goes against that message. Let’s turn the tables on this one… what if the wise were indeed wise but they were also greedy? What if we looked at the hoarding of oil instead of sharing it as something foolish and hateful? If you love your neighbor, aren’t you called to share what you have with your neighbor? That’s how the early church began. Holding things in common and caring for the community.

If you really want to be uncomfortable, slowly read the passage from the Hebrew Scriptures for Sunday, Amos 5:18-24, paying close attention to verses 21-24. Jesus called his disciples to love their neighbor as the law and the prophets command. He added to that to love your enemies. Amos takes direct aim at false piety/holiness. Why does God despise the festivals, offerings, and songs of the people? I am convinced/convicted that the reason God doesn’t want them is because they are hollow words and gestures. I wonder what God felt like when God heard the worship on Sunday morning offered by those who only the night before had worn white robes and hoods as they burned crosses and lynched people of color. How does God respond when we leave worship (or the livestream on the computer) and promptly forget how we have been challenged by the Lord and the Spirit to live differently?

We are in the middle of incredibly fearful and divisive times. We can’t simply close our eyes and ignore what is going on around us. We won’t find peace that way. Dr King’s quote at the beginning of this blog challenges our complacency and desire for “personal” peace. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” We must look beyond ourselves and the personal-salvific experience. What good is it to have your own “peace” when others cry out for justice. Amos’ dream is my dream… and I believe that each of us are called to work towards that day when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The challenge is overwhelmingly huge, but I believe that through the strength of God the Creator, Christ, and Spirit, we can take up this challenge and live our lives differently. That is my desire, dear reader, and I pray it is yours as well. Will you join me?

  1. Betty Williams permalink

    Thank you for this message.

  2. pynkoski2 permalink

    Interesting, Michael. It ocurred to me to ask why they couldn’t share the oil…we have so far to go.

  3. “When I entered seminary in 1983, I was in the minority as a young, straight, white, male.” I remember that! Thanks for the reflections. The devotion I was reading this week, asked the question ,”How does this parable make you feel?” And I found myself exactly where you are at – wanting to change the parable to be more inclusive, so everyone gets invited in.

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